Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, recently wrote a book called, “Breaking History.” It’s received poor reviews. However, I do like the idea behind the title and have stolen it to name this post, “Breaking Society” because that is the actual context for his book, a society in danger through polarization and mistrust. Although that might seem to signal this post is merely political opinion, that’s not actually my intent.
I’ve been studying the social process and impacts of deeply felt negative assumptions for well over twenty years and certain themes are clear — no matter the context. Here are some patterns I’ve picked up, illustrated through examples from the culture wars. (Keep in mind these principles might apply more generally to pretty much any serious conflict although the examples would change):
- Allowing fears of what might be happening to drive egregious conclusions about others’ motives and characteristics (e.g., “they are only doing this for power”)
- Reducing others to these motives and characteristics in extreme forms (“they are fascists; they are communists; they are pure evil”)
- Projecting onto others an intent to curtail or constrain rights or freedoms (“you’re trying to get me to shut up”)
- Abhorring compromise as if it were a personal violation of one’s dignity or a group’s dignity, ultimately justifying interpersonal or actual violence. (“I’m not going to let them steal our country, no matter what!”)
- Blaming the other side for the existence of the conflict in the first place (“they’ve been doing this for a long time; it’s too bad we didn’t recognize it then and stop it earlier”)
- Seeing trolling, mockery, sarcasm, personal attacks, put-downs and other judgments as not only justified but as a sign of membership and of standing up for one’s side (“they are snowflakes; they are bigots”)
- Portraying oneself as a victim of others (“they are so unfair”)
- Expressing contempt and hate for the other side (“they are the ones who hate America”)
- Calling out the hypocrisy of the other side without examining your own (“Look at what they said five years — or five minutes — ago!”)
While the examples I’m citing have to do with current culture wars, unfortunately the conflict isn’t radically different than other forms of mistrust. What these dynamics all have in common is the triggering of deeply felt negative beliefs that define each side’s idea of the truth about what’s happening while alleging others are instigators and bad actors. This makes truth a sensitive and extremely vulnerable tipping point. Lack of agreement on what the truth is, who’s right, who’s wrong are the horses pulling the charnel wagon. Each side attacks the veracity of the other side persistently and dynamically as determined by their own confirmation biases. As mistrust builds, outright mendacity if not simple misleading become self-justified tools but perhaps more sadly they also become the baseline assumption about what the other side is always doing. Ultimately, I think we yield to self-ignorance in order to continue rationalizing our own inner turmoil and questionable conduct.
And here we are.
Even though to an outsider the behaviors may look similar for both sides, it would also be a grave error to suggest there’s some kind of equivalence between the sides. We feel forced to take sides. And that is exactly how I believe mistrust breaks relationships and ultimately breaks society. Once we cannot believe each other and we are totally hooked on our versions of reality, we are no longer truly able to identify or empathize with one another. We are constantly and automatically in the process of violating one another’s dignity. We do not share a common morality. You assert your beliefs. I assert mine. But we are no longer talking to one another at all. We reduce the humanity of others and are reduced ourselves. They are no longer real or whole people. They are libtards. They are conservative assholes. And that’s all. From such a place, there’s no way back. We have to go through.
So, what is the way through this quagmire?
To which I must ask one last related question: Is there any hope that the sides can talk together about the mistrust and polarization, about the breaking of society and its impacts, without that conversation simply devolving back into an argument between the sides? My own experience with conflict suggests that when mistrust truly dominates so that there is no equivalence then there is probably also no way such a potentially unifying conversation can really take hold. It might happen in small groups or between a pair of people, but in the midst of profound conflict, people are mostly disinclined to step into “meta” space at all, no matter how carefully framed the invitation. If it is vital for them to win because their baseline identity is at stake, they’ll keep provoking one another (and themselves), even if that ultimately means leaning into hostile disputes, destroying relationships, inciting legal battles or condoning the physical violence that lurks just around the corner. Then the tensions inexorably build, a war of some kind takes place and only when both sides are totally beat up and exhausted do moves toward peace and compromise begin to appear.
Look, in this country we’ve been triggered by a massive, poisoning infusion of mistrust, sketched by the nine bullets listed above, plus — and this is key — a lack of equivalence. And now, whether it’s two people, or two hundred million, we need to find a constructive way through. We are all responsible for that.
I believe we all do kind of know what the answer is and that it requires conscious, deliberate work rather than allowing ourselves to be seduced into wounding others in the name of protecting ourselves. What can we do?
Place more focus on your own behavior than that of others. Recognize your belief system and its liabilities; step back; unhook from believing that your own emotional (especially fearful or angry or righteous) logic is the only truth. Rebel against sneaker waves of blame set off by friends, colleagues, family or your own inner conditioning. Know your boundaries and limits. State your truth plainly but watch what motives you are attributing; what projections you are making. The default ought to be treating others with kindness; being generous in your interpretations. Being fair and just. Avoiding interpersonal violence. Working toward dialogue. Not taking the bait.
I believe it’s also important to recognize the seeds of mistrust in the broader fact that we are currently confronting some very tough problems in our country: governance; equality, resources; awareness; responsibility, none of which have easy answers and all requiring an evolution of consciousness and new level of human maturity. Society is breaking, at least in part, because we are all having to come to terms with realities that are intrinsically problematic, painful and urgent. Many in leadership roles are not helping nearly as much as they could. Inaction is epidemic. Yet, our increased discord is also evidence that change is coming. It’s inevitable and we know it; we just don’t know yet exactly what it will be and what we will do with it. That doesn’t mean we have to go to war with one another. It does require us to help with the birth, recognizing that not everyone can be there or will be in time.